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John The Reengineering of a Traditional Supervisor

March 1, 2000
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Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley company, from "The 21st Century Supervisor." Copyright (c) 2000 by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer. This book is available at all bookstores, Amazon, and from the Jossey-Bass Web site at www.jbp.com, or call 1-800-956-7739.


John has experienced what all too many Americans have experienced: downsizing, relocation, and a company buyout. If it has happened to a company, John has probably experienced it. Once, having just relocated from a southwestern to a southeastern plant, John was told on his tenth day in his new location that the company was closing the southeastern plant -- so much for job security.

John went to work as a frontline employee right after high school at a bedspring manufacturer. He displayed a willingness to work hard, some mechanical aptitudes, and an incredibly positive attitude. He was promoted to the position of supervisor at the ripe old age of twenty-one. "To become a supervisor," John explains, "you had to come to work regularly, be willing to work overtime whenever needed, and be a decent mechanic. If you were a good mechanic, you were almost always considered supervisor material."

It was traditional management -- taking good technical employees and making them supervisors. In John’s case, what he lacked in years of experience and in knowing the tricks of the trade, he made up for with enthusiasm and the ability to communicate. These are two characteristics he still puts to good use now, almost twenty years later.

"In the early days, most of my effort as a supervisor was spent recording the daily production results, making sure the roll call sheets were complete and correct, and working hard to see that what the boss wanted done got done. I didn’t have a choice of keeping my hands on or off the machine. It was simply understood that a supervisor had to work production as well as keep an eye on the employees."

A lot has changed over the years for John. He first heard about quality, continuous improvement, and work teams many years ago, but he got involved with them only in the past few years. In those last two to three years, John has witnessed a complete reversal in his company’s attitude and practices. "It used to be," he comments, "that supervisors would say, ‘no news is good news,’ because about the only time we heard anything from management was when there was a problem or someone screwed up. That’s not the case today -- thank God!"

John’s company has become more open about information. "Once a month," John explains, "our plant’s senior managers make a presentation on the status of the company and our facility. Everyone is invited to attend, including the hourly employees. Just five or six years ago, not even the assistant plant manager was in the know about how well or poorly we were doing. When frontline employees see the actual dollars involved with building our products, they leave speechless. It’s like a light goes on in their heads, and they finally realize that mistakes are costly and that finding improvement solutions can put more money into their pockets."

John would be the first to say that such change has not happened overnight. "Are you kidding?" he asks. "This whole change to continuous improvement and teams is a process. Keep in mind that our work environment was a ‘do your job only’ environment. This did nothing but produce poor quality, bad relationships, and almost led to a plant shutdown. This move toward openness has blown just about everyone’s mind, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Some things just need to be done by shock treatment."

Adjusting as a supervisor has also been an interesting journey for John. "I’ve gone from doing what top management wanted without question to trying to gain the participation of our hourly workforce in making decisions and solving problems," he says.

John has also come to appreciate the importance of education and training as part of the preparation needed to move a whole company to the next century. John puts it this way:

"We don’t have a choice. If we are to be competitive, we must get more people involved with decision making, solving problems, and meeting the customers’ requirements. There is no substitute for education and training. Even if people resist it, a company must continue to push such things. Most of our people have responded, not always easily, but they have responded. As supervisors we had to learn everything that our hourly workers were asked to learn. It shouldn’t be any other way."

Even though John has spent a lot of time in the classroom, he knows that was just the beginning of his learning process. "There are a number of skills that I believe most supervisors need to acquire," he explains. "First, they need to know how to get their hands on information. After securing the information needed for themselves and their teams, they need to learn how to distribute the information. You know, being the communicator or facilitator of the information so that your employees understand. Finally, a supervisor needs to become more knowledgeable and active about customer service."

John has found one key has helped more than any other in developing information skills: the computer. Just two years ago, John couldn’t have told you how to turn a computer on, much less how to access information from the company’s computer database. Now all that has changed. In less than a year John became one of the most proficient people in the plant at accessing information that he and his production teams can use. In his own words, "The computer has replaced my tool box as my most important asset as a supervisor."

Has John become all that he can be as a supervisor? Not by a long shot he would be the first to admit. "I’m still a long way from where I need to be in the future," he says, "but I’m more confident about getting there than I was just a few years ago."

How does John see his role in the future? He explains: "I’ll need to be even more of a coach in the future. Teaching my teams what I’ve learned will take a greater amount of my time. My coaching effort will be focused on supporting my teams and making sure they have the right information when they need it in order to improve performance results."

John is a great example of a seasoned supervisor who is learning to supervise in a different manner. When asked if he had any words of wisdom for other supervisors, John thoughtfully responded, "Be patient with yourself; nothing changes overnight. Also, learn everything you can about continuous improvement, its tools and processes, and then transfer that knowledge to your teams. Teams are the future."

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